Edie Weinstein encourages men to see crying as an emotional re-set button that bolsters strength and resilience to face challenges.
“He whose cheek is seared by his own tears is forever pure”- Khalil Gibran
I sat in the black vinyl chair, leaning forward to meet the gaze of the man who then hunched over in his own, head in his hands. Therapist and client, ours was both a professional relationship and one that linked us as beings on a human journey. He had just suffered an overwhelming loss; the death of his father. Eyes reddened, a tight grimace across his face. I asked him what he was thinking, since the realm of emotions was too challenging for him. He shook his head. I invited him to tell me about his father. He described a man who was solid, dependable, and at times, stoic, but he knew his dad loved him. I wondered if he had expressed his grief out loud.
What had his father taught him about tears? As I had heard countless times in three decades in the role of ‘privileged listener’, the words “Real men don’t cry,” were uttered. I sighed and responded that men have tear ducts too and that crying was a normal response to loss and in many ways, a tribute to the relationship that had been forever changed by death. My client, like many men, was indoctrinated to believe that shedding tears was a sign of weakness that rendered him vulnerable. I shook my head, feeling the sadness well up within me and said, that it simply made him human.
He told me that he needed to “be strong for the rest of his family; the rock they can depend on, like my Dad.”
“Even rocks crumble,” I reminded him.
The desire in men to hold back tears is culturally mandated
According to Dr. Louann Brizendine, the author of the best-selling book, “The Female Brain.”:
“Social conditioning comes into play in restraining the impulse to cry,” Brizendine says. “When we experience physical pain or emotional sadness or frustration, the brain’s amygdala, which is part of the limbic system or “emotional brain,” fires up signals. If the stimulus is great enough, the energy can travel from the emotional area into the frontal motor strip. That’s when breathing can devolve into sobbing.”
She explains that when necessary:
“Boys often come up with mechanisms to calm themselves before they cross the precipice from tearing up to weeping.”
Research indicates that testosterone helps raise the threshold between emotional stimulus and the shedding of tears. “It helps put the brakes on,” she says.
What are the benefits of crying?
Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that reflex tears (those that help us cleanse our eyes when we are around smoke or other irritants) are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying. After studying the composition of tears, Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.”
Crying can be an emotional re-set button that enables us to gather our strength and resilience to face challenges.
Phil Garber is a bearded gentle bear of a man who I have known for over 20 years. He is also my son Adam’s ‘unofficial Big Brother’ who has been his go-to guy for guidance on matters both personal and professional. Insightful, wickedly funny, highly spiritual and deeply devoted to those he loves, Phil has become Adam’s surrogate father since a few years after my husband died in 1998. There was a time not too many years ago when in a moment of all encompassing darkness that we almost lost Phil as he made an attempt on his own life.
Phil’s father Art was not so gentle.
“When my father related to me physically, it was almost always in a tough manner. From ages 1-6 years old, he would toss me around, flip me around, do bench presses with me on his bed, feign boxing with me. His idea from day one was to toughen me up and make me a man. It did not work. As tough as I am at times, other times, I am as sensitive as a thin piece of glass. I was very hurt by many comments that adults made and my peers. It definitely caused depression and loneliness. I was not fully aware of this until I was properly educated later. I wanted to act tough, even when I felt like a wilting flower inside.”
He has described his own relationship with tears in this way:
“The message was that men were supposed to be strong and control themselves. I did see my father cry at times of death. And certainly not many other times. ” His aunt Dede and Uncle Nat reinforced the enculturated belief that crying was a sign of weakness and that even in the midst of his beloved cousin Betty’s psychiatric hospitalization, he was admonished to remain stoic.
The cumulative effect of these potent messages took its toll and a cardiac diagnosis ensued. Like many men, Phil found a sense of empowerment on the job and in the face of a serious medical condition, a loss of control.
“I realize that I established my identity as my vocation. I was “The Comptroller!” (Financial Comptroller, that is) I had some authority. I had the owner’s ear. I was critical to the success of the business (or so I imagined). When I realized after the heart surgery, that I simply could not work full time or even close, I felt useless. I had been working one full time and about 3 part time jobs before the surgery. I had identified myself as a person who takes care of his family financially. I was the main bread winner. It really hurt my ego, when I could not work. Soon, I realized that my brain was not working the same as before the surgery. I don’t do well with anesthesia. And let me back up a bit; I was told in May of 2008 that if I did not have my mitral valve repaired or replaced, my life would be in jeopardy. The leakage that had gone on for the 1st 43 years of my life was no simply too much. Due to my severe scoliosis, my heart surgeon decided to cut my chest open and crack my sternum, instead of taking the risk of minimally invasive surgery. He literally could not tell exactly where my heart was. That always inspires confidence, when the heart surgeon says, “I don’t quite know where your heart is”, while looking at my chest x-ray.”
Phil’s brain went on strike as he began to experience paranoid delusions and other symptoms of psychosis.
“My body was not working. My mind was not working. All I saw was hopelessness. I have since realized that one teaspoon of hope to a suicidal person is better than ANY medicine on the market. There were other very deep wounds and horribly negative messages that I carried (I realize now in retrospect) that highly contributed to my suicide attempt.”
Examples of these were: “I don’t deserve” (ie: happiness, a great wife, kids, even GOD!). “I am worthless” “I am a constant burden to those I love”. “I am not worthy”. “I am wrong/bad”. I wanted a do-over. I felt that I messed up my life and all the lives around me so bad and that I was so inept, I needed to start fresh after more training in the life between lives (yes, I believe in reincarnation).
In 2001, he embarked on a journey that led him to The New Warrior Training (part of the ManKind Project). It was there that he found solace and support from other men whose lives were also fraught with those same devastating demons. All emotions were invited as they laughed and cried together.
These days, he says: ” I welcome tears. I am comfortable crying in most situations. If others feel uncomfortable with that, they need to look at themselves. I find a good cry so healing and cleansing! I do not force, I do not “should on myself” about it (ie: “I am at a funeral for a close relative, I should cry.”). I let it come naturally and it does. When I cry, I make a strong intention to give up this pain to God and humbly ask that God take the pain from me. It certainly increases the cleansing process.”
And in that surrender to his full human-ness, Phil’s pain is washed clean.